Speakers of the Dead: A Walt Whitman Mystery
1st in Series
Setting – New York
A Plume Book
An Imprint of Penguin Random House LLC
Release Date – March 1, 2016
Paperback: 320 pages
E-Book ASIN: B010N18IKO
Speakers of the Dead is a mystery novel centering around the investigative exploits of a young Walt Whitman, in which the reporter-cum-poet navigates the seedy underbelly of New York City’s body-snatching industry in an attempt to exonerate his friend of a wrongful murder charge.
The year is 1843; the place: New York City. Aurora reporter Walt Whitman arrives at the Tombs prison yard where his friend Lena Stowe is scheduled to hang for the murder of her husband, Abraham. Walt intends to present evidence on Lena’s behalf, but Sheriff Harris turns him away. Lena drops to her death, and Walt vows to posthumously exonerate her.
Walt’s estranged boyfriend, Henry Saunders, returns to New York, and the two men uncover a link between body-snatching and Abraham’s murder: a man named Samuel Clement. To get to Clement, Walt and Henry descend into a dangerous underworld where resurrection men steal the bodies of the recently deceased and sell them to medical colleges. With no legal means to acquire cadavers, medical students rely on these criminals, and Abraham’s involvement with the Bone Bill—legislation that would put the resurrection men out of business—seems to have led to his and Lena’s deaths.
J. Aaron Sanders takes a tragic time in history, bodies being snatched from their graves, and twists it just right with a young Walt Whitman on a quest for justice. Lena Stowe has been accused of killing her husband with not much evidence. Her friend Walt Whitman tries to plead her case but is unsuccessful the Lena is hanged in the prison yard. You need to know about Lena and her husband Abraham. They have opened the Woman’s Medical College of Manhattan. Scandalous because women are not allowed to be doctors and because the students dissect corpses to learn about the workings of the body. These corpses may have been donated to the college or stolen from graves and sold to the school. In those days people believed their loved one could only ascend to heaven if their bodies and organs were intact. There were rallies and demonstrations to close the school and to stop the body snatchers. There was also a bill, the Bone Bill, something the Stowe’s supported, in the works that put an end to the body’s snatchers altogether.
This was a truly riveting story. Organ donation and cadavers used for study is common place today, but in 1843 it was a sin and illegal. Walt knows his friend Lena, did not kill her husband and knows there is some deep dark secrets behind the story. He uses the resources he has available writing for the newspaper to ask questions and print articles that will incite the public and help him find the truth. This truth comes at a very high cost.
This is a work of fiction but some of the things that happen actually occurred which can lead you to almost forget it is fiction. Whitman is joined by Edgar Allan Poe at one point in the story too. This is had my scratching my head and trying to remember their writings for things that may have been inspired from these incidents. I must say here you do not have to have read Whitman’s work to enjoy this story. Without the background, you have a young man on a mission, a dangerous mission. The author surrounds him with amazing characters, like his estranged boyfriend, Henry, and Elizabeth Blackwell, a young woman studying to become a doctor who takes over the college when her mentors are killed just to name two. There are also the public officials, students, and the men stealing the bodies and so many more.
This story reminded me a bit of Death of a Schoolgirl by Joanna Campbell Slan. In that story she turned Jane Eyre into an amateur sleuth, just as Sanders does with Whitman here. The story also reminds me of the Lady Darby Mysteries by Anna Lee Huber, as women in this story buck tradition to take on something only males are allowed to pursue.
This mystery gets quite intense and has some wonderful twists so that at times we don’t know the good guys from the bad ones and neither does Walt. Throughout the story we have political corruption, fights between religion and science, and some organized crime.
This author takes us a quite an adventure. He also gives us a man that goes to great lengths to prove his friends innocence and redeem their names and show the importance of their work. Work he wasn’t totally supportive of when they were alive but came to understand very quickly after their death.
I am excited that this book is the beginning of a series. I really want to see where the author takes this character. He is off to an excellent start. Did I mention this is the author’s first novel? He is a wonderful storyteller.
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*There were a couple of parts of this story that were difficult for me to read due to how my son died last year but I don’t feel that impacted my review in any way.
About This Author
Aaron Sanders is Associate Professor of English at Columbus State University where he teaches literature and creative writing. He holds a PhD in American Literature from The University of Connecticut and an MFA in Fiction from The University of Utah. His stories have appeared in Carolina Quarterly, Gulf Coast, Quarterly West, and Beloit Fiction Journal, among others.
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